Quantum Narratives and Other Disintegrations
As the world becomes more and fractured, in good ways and bad, the movies which come up through the cultural swamp are either going to reflect and acknowledge this, or become increasingly formal and conservative. Formal movies aren't going to track very well on my radar, but I am on high-alert when it comes to disjointed, slippery and uncertain narratives. I am not talking about non-linear plots, such as Pulp Fiction or Memento. I am inclined towards films whose sense of reality is profoundly and fundamentally insecure.
Mother, the latest film by Joon-ho Bong (The Host), looks on the DVD box like it has absolutely nothing to do with giant monsters in the river. I can tell you without spoiling anything that there are no giant monsters in this film. The beginning of the film has more in common with comedy, farce or some sort of neo-realist teen drama. Kids get into trouble. Mom is over-protective of one son, distrusts another, and dislikes most of their friends. In fact, besides some cinematic touches (and some brilliant nuanced performances by ), there is nothing that really makes this seem like anything more than a nice, safe, coming-of-age story. So much so that I was doubting if I could actually finish this one.
Then, something happens. There's a murder. After this murder, the film begins a slow, spiraling descent away from the moorings it had spent nearly an hour developing. Then, things get worse, and weirder and in not much time at all you cannot really be sure what is real, who is innocent and who this Mother woman really is. You can almost feel narrative vertigo as the plot takes labyrinthine turns. In the end, while the narrative events are hard to dispute, you may feel like you cannot trust your own conclusions or sympathies. Or you may find yourself troubled by how little you distrusted them to begin with.
The film's style is very subtle. It's uneasy and bleak from the beginning, but nothing obvious to clearly mark it as a thriller or anything that is setting out to mess with your head. This is it's strength and most potent illusion, because this normalcy has to be believed to get the full effect of the disaster ahead. The script, or at least the translation, never feels hammy, hackneyed or forced. Again, it is all so terribly natural, and then, so terribly unnatural; either way, nothing visually changes, just the plot events around Mother. There are moments of smart, unsettling horror. Nothing lurid, images that are just off, just a little, and it's enough to keep things unsettled and hint at darker undertones.
None of this would matter much if it was left in the hands of clumsy actors. All of the performances in this film are pitch perfect for the world and environment, and so much is revealed in voice, nuanced expression and gesture that the lingering screen time the camera gives to the performers is essential.
You will see references to Hitchcock in other reviews of this film, and it is not inappropriate. Much of the sense of dread that pervades his serious work can be felt here, and certainly Mother would find herself at home in several of Hitchcock's films. She is a woman who you will make you wonder "What will she do?", "Will she be able to do it?" and ultimately "What has she done?".
No giant monsters here, but there is plenty of danger beneath the surface.
A few thousand miles to the Northwest, there's a little Danish village that has some other problems. Problems, that like the world of Mother, are hard to spot from the beginning. Robert Hansen ( arrives in this town for reasons that are murky. It's not clear if he really had a nervous breakdown, if he did something worse, or if it actually is a desired change of scenery from life in Copenhagen. He's not there too long before folks start talking about "their way of doing things" or that "things are different here" without giving specifics. The warning is meant to be vague for Robert and for the viewer. A warning which is, of course, unheeded.
So, when the film moves into some noir-ish territory there is an even more sinister vibe hanging over everything. There's this bog that everything disappears into, and there is not a small chance this includes problem people, a category that Robert moves closer to all the time. There's the femme fatale who may be completely off her rocker or the scapegoat for the entire town. There's a creepy little girl that rides her bicycle through town in the middle of the night. Yet, the town is put together, and trying so hard to be a nice village that viewers can never really be sure where wickedness lies, or where it doesn't. Like Mother, Robert gets himself entangled in events he never expected too, and slips into a whirlwind of anxiety, doubt and violence. One body goes into the bog, and another one surfaces, Robert thinks he's doing the right thing, but viewers will be uncertain and apprehensive about this. Robert is a flawed hero in a seriously flawed world, and in this movie, neither are in a hurry to get that out into the open.
Terrible Happy is moody-looking, shot in a similar drab palette as Mother, very tightly composed with angles that are all a little off-kilter. This creates an unease that pushed the tone through moments which may otherwise seem innocent. The performances in here are a different sort than Mother, in this film Robert seems like he's the straight man and everyone else in the town is in on the joke. He's sincere, and they are all talking in half-truths or coded meanings. The performances are meant to be half-believed and they succeed at that.
All in all, Terribly Happy is a strangely welcome addition to the neo-noir universe. Somehow, though, this film does it better than most of the films from the nineties neo-noir revival. Perhaps it is because, the filmmakers, like the villagers, tried so hard to keep the darkness behind doors, in the bog or under a blood-soaked carpet.
Speaking of Memento, it's really been awhile since Christopher Nolan took a step back into those turbulent waters. Certainly, his style was a welcome addition to the Batman(Dark Knight) franchise, but it has been too long since he's really been able to cut loose and mess with your head. In some ways, Inception may be the result of all those years of behaving. Sort of.
Dream work has been around for awhile, I suppose perhaps even longer than Nightmare on Elm Street. There was that Dreamscape movie, Altered States, Even Cabinet of Dr. Caligari chronicles the real-world result of meddling in other people's heads. So, it's not brilliantly original, or ground-breaking, but it is probably the movie with the biggest budget and most special effects to take this approach. Obviously, there's plenty of hand-waving about the "Extraction" technology itself, but once you get past that, the plot and characters hold up pretty well. In it's own way, Inception has a similar strategy to both Mother and Terribly Happy. It is clear that the audience is not supposed to be confused, and the exposition goes at great lengths to let you know exactly what is going on. Viewers need to know what is happening, or at least think they do, before they can really be shoved off into delirious seas. On first pass, fans of weirdo movies might be disappointed with just how cut and dried it all is. Like Mother, you need to be patient and let the movie set-in for the full effect to kick-in.
In the post-Avatar world it strikes me as blase to rave about a film's special effects. The joy in this film is how the special effects replicate and warp reality, so they are at their best when they are invisible. After not too long, you know the whole situation is fluid, and the filmmaker's wisely decided that they didn't need to weird you out with every sequence. Furthermore, the production itself is buttoned down. There's not too much in the way of really fancy cinematography because in the dreams, and the film, it is essential that you do not realize you are dreaming. Every frame is masterfully controlled by the filmmakers, and as a matter of control, they only let you see what they want you to see and when you need to see it. There are a few predictable visual nods to previous films, most notably Blade Runner, and even those serve as a bit of misdirection. If you "get it", you're really no better off than a viewer that didn't. Probably more confused.
If there's a weak point in all of this, it is the performances and portions of the screenplay. Unlike the nuances of the villagers in Terribly Happy, the characters in this film don't seem too hip to their own multi-dimensional nature. Maybe it's a zen thing, be here now, but I didn't see any difference in performances from one state to the next. How masterful would it have been if we could have seen this? You'd think playing with madness like this would have a subtle toll on the operator. Leonardo DiCaprio just doesn't carry the heft of someone who has already lived an entire life and been into his own purgatory. Other actors are guilty of this, perhaps Ken Watanabe and Marion Cotillard deliver the best depth and dimensionality.
Inception isn't entirely successful. The tendency is to blame the Hollywood purse-holders, probably it is true, but the film spent a little too much time being a traditional action movie. These kind of sequences provided an unwelcome unreality, and smacked of a labored connection to The Matrix. The film is doing well enough at the box office, which is nothing to ignore these days, so these scenes are working for some crowd. Unfortunately, they are extraneous and will not age well, especially after better effects and better weirdo films roll down the chute.
Ultimately, I believe we will be seeing more and more of these uncertain realities. In some weird, pretzel way, these quantum and insecure worlds are closer to life outside of the theater than a realistic linear film. Perhaps the world has forced an evolution in consciousness, so that audiences are more willing to handle films which reveal little, distort much and offer no answers. Technology approaches the speed of thought. Effects approach absolute visual verisimilitude. The entire culture drifts, in wobbling, unpredictable turns, away from external order and nearer to the life of the mind.
There's no chart for that territory.